University of Kentucky gets $12.2 million federal grant to study hazardous waste sites

cgross@herald-leader.comJune 16, 2014 

The University of Kentucky won a $12.2 million federal grant Monday to research the environmental effects of hazardous waste sites.

The grant was awarded by the National Institutes of Health and will be administered by the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. It is one of the largest grants the NIH has awarded UK.

Kentucky has more than 200 so-called Superfund sites, which the Environmental Protection Agency defines as "uncontrolled or abandoned places where hazardous waste is located." Fourteen of those sites are on a national priority list of 157 sites that have released or threaten to release hazardous material or contaminants, according to the EPA.

The UK Superfund Research Center, which started in 1997, will use the grant to continue research on a variety of topics, including how nutrition can reduce the negative effects of exposure to hazardous environmental chemicals.

Bernhard Hennig, director of the UK Superfund Research Center, said the ultimate goal was to reduce the instances of diseases common in Kentucky, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"A positive lifestyle change such as healthy nutrition can protect against the disease-causing factors of these chemicals," Hennig said.

He said a primary focus would be on polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. According to the EPA, PCBs are man-made organic chemicals that were banned in 1979. However, some companies still may use equipment produced before the ban. PCBs are sometimes found in transformers, electrical equipment, oil-based paints, floor finish and several other products made before 1979.

"We are optimistic that the results from our environmental science research will help accelerate the clean-up of several Superfund sites in Kentucky, such as the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant," said Lindell Ormsbee, associate director of the Superfund Research Center.

The Paducah plant, which was leased and operated by the U.S. Department of Energy to enrich uranium, was shut down by the DOE last year. Officials now are cleaning up more than 50 years of hazardous waste produced by uranium enrichment.

Hennig said some projects led by the Superfund Research Center are underway at the Paducah plant to clean up contaminated ground water, surface water, soil and landfills. The site's contamination doesn't threaten people living and working near the site, according to the EPA.

Ormsbee said the UK center's research probably would have other applications as well, including "uses in treating drinking water and removing toxic metals from power plant water."

Lexy Gross: (859) 231-3335. Twitter: @lexygross.

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